Syrians quit Ghouta as talks for last pocket stutter

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Hundreds more Syrian rebels and civilians prepared Friday to leave Eastern Ghouta under a negotiated withdrawal, as Russia unilaterally announced a similar deal to empty the final pocket of the battered enclave.

The former rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus has been drained by a nearly six-week Syrian government assault and a pair of evacuation deals brokered by regime ally Moscow.

Under such agreements, rebels agree to hand over territory in exchange for safe passage for them and civilians to opposition zones in northwest Syria.

More than 36,000 people have already been bussed out of the enclave, and fresh evacuations were under way on Friday.

Around 1,000 people, a quarter of them fighters, were boarding buses in a pocket of Ghouta held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction, according to Syrian state media.

That agreement, reached last week, left the overpopulated, devastated town of Douma as the final rebel holdout in the region.

Russia’s defence ministry on Friday said it had brokered a deal that would see rebels abandon Douma “shortly”, but the fighters there quickly denied it.

“We categorically refuse leaving or being displaced,” said Jaish al-Islam’s spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar.

“That’s an essential demand of the negotiations. We have not reached an agreement yet,” he told AFP, adding that talks were ongoing.

Eastern Ghouta was the armed opposition’s last stronghold around Damascus, which groups regularly targeted with rockets and mortar rounds.

To secure Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad launched a ferocious air and ground assault on February 18 to oust rebels from their perch in Ghouta.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the onslaught, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Troops pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy, seizing most of the enclave then breaking up what was left of it into three isolated pockets.

Moscow stepped in and swiftly announced two withdrawal agreements with rebels, the first of which saw more than 4,500 fighters and civilians bussed out of the town of Harasta.

The second deal, reached with Faylaq al-Rahman one week ago, has seen more than 31,000 people quit the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the Jobar district.

In the first two deals, rebels caved in to Russia’s “leave or die” approach but negotiations for the Douma pocket, held by Jaish al-Islam, has looked more arduous.

Douma’s population has swelled to an estimated 200,000 with people displaced from other bombed-out districts.

Jaish al-Islam had been in talks with Russia to reach a settlement whereby they could stay, instead of being bused out like other rebels.

But negotiations faltered over the group’s demands of a general amnesty and safe passage for Douma residents to move freely across the country, a source with knowledge of the talks told AFP.

Moscow threatened Jaish al-Islam with a renewed blitz on the town if they did not agree to withdraw, and Syrian troops have amassed around the holdout.

The rebel movement have also come under growing pressure from Douma’s residents, hundreds of whom have organised demonstrations demanding a status update on the talks.

On Thursday, Russia’s foreign minister said Syrian forces had ousted nearly all rebels from Ghouta.

“As a result of this anti-terrorism operation in Eastern Ghouta, terrorist elements have nearly been wiped out of this suburb of the Syrian capital,” Sergei Lavrov said.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said around 29,000 civilians had fled Douma in recent days, using a “corridor” opened up by advancing Syrian troops.

SANA said a total of 143,000 people in total had streamed out of Ghouta along such corridors and as part of the evacuation deals.

It did not confirm the agreement with Jaish al-Islam, but its correspondent said “preliminary information” indicated a deal was close to being reached.

The rebels evacuated so far were bussed to the northwestern province of Idlib and one of the sticking points in the Douma talks appears to be the destination.

“The problem with Jaish al-Islam is that it’s quite big, very cohesive, very organised, but it doesn’t go well with anyone else,” said Thomas Pierret, an analyst at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.